Questions about Race and Performance

“Maaariiiia! I just met a white person pretending to be a Puerto Rican girl named Maaariiaaaaa!”

A few days ago, I posted this question to my facebook wall:

So, I have a question about race-blind casting. I don’t have any ulterior motives here. This is not meant to be snarky or tongue-in-cheek or ironic or anything like that. Just an honest question.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you wanted to do a play wherein some key characters are Latino or Asian, and wherein race is important to the story (so, not A Raisin in the Sun, but maybe West Side Story or Miss Saigon).

Let’s say you can be pretty sure that your casting pool will be 90% white. You can, reasonably, make (most) white people look Asian or Latino, without going quite so far as actual blackface (this is why I’m not including plays with black characters–I think that’s a whole other level). BUT you are unlikely to be able to cast actual Asian or Latino people–although you very much want to–because they aren’t in your casting pool. Maybe you work at a very white college. Situations beyond your control are making it so you have mostly white people to work with.

Do you do one of these plays, which explore many interesting issues that go beyond race (but which do, indeed, have race at their core)?

Or do you make a different play selection, knowing that you’d kind of have to fudge the actors’ race in order to do one of these plays?

The responses were varied and thoughtful. Some people basically said, “What’s the big deal?” Christopher said, “There seems to be no trouble (at least from the perspective of an audience member) of using female characters in traditionally male roles. Why? It’s not because the femaleness of the actors is hidden – it’s because the narrative and the actors stand on their own merits. I would like to think that the same could be said for ethnicity. Also, somehow relating to this, are casts for Fiddler on the Roof comprised entirely of Gentiles.” He makes a good point; I’ve seen plenty of community theater productions of Fiddler featuring actors who wouldn’t know a shlemiel from a schmear, and no one bats an eyelash. One of the first plays I worked on was a production of The Diary of Anne Frank, and I think there was one Jewish person in the cast. No one–in the cast or the audience–commented on this.

Other people–interestingly, most of the “theater people”–felt that it was a recipe for disaster. Cast across gender, cast across age, but race is–a special case. Abbey writes, “Regardless of a director’s or a cast’s motives — pure as they may be — it’s appropriation to stage plays about people of color with white folks. White people repurposing people-of-color stuff is a pretty common thing, unfortunately, and it marginalizes and minimizes the contributions of POC.”  I think she’s right, and this is the exact reason I was posing the question to begin with. White privilege complicates things, in this case.  This is why I’m reluctant to go there. But where is “there”? Where are the lines? Is it okay for a bunch of people with no Irish heritage to pull out their dialog tapes, learn a brogue, and do Dancing at Lughnasa? What about the afore-mentioned Gentile Fiddler (and, for the sake of clarity, I have had many, many pale-skinned Jewish people tell me that they don’t think of themselves as “white”).

Another question that is relevant here is how much of any of this the audience is aware of. I specifically posed races that white people can be somewhat reasonably adjusted to look more like. A couple of people mentioned that it might be distracting to the audience if they were wondering how the makeup artist made some white person look like they were Asian. The point I was trying to make is that the audience might not be aware, if they didn’t know the actors personally. I saw a play last year about Mexican women crossing the desert to (illegally) enter the United States. None of the actors were Latina–and they weren’t particularly made-up to look Latina, either. I sat through a long talk-back after the show and no one–in an audience that had plenty of Latinos in it–commented on this. Some of the respondents to my question pointed out that ethnic lines are sort of arbitrary things we have all agreed on anyway. I have a good friend who self-identifies as Latina. She lived in Mexico for quite a while, and her cultural upbringing is Mexican-American. She also has green eyes and light brown hair, and in a photo, doesn’t read as Latina. How much does skin color = ethnicity?

Katelyn wrote, “Any cross-casting (across age lines, sexual orientations, race, or gender, etc) is going to create a dialogue between the character and the actor and SHOULD BE accompanied by a dialogue between the director and actor.” This is absolutely true, and interesting, but should be part of any play. Any role an actor takes on is going to diverge from that actor’s experience, and this is where the director comes in. That’s the director’s job, guiding an actor across those lines in a respectful way, without resorting to cheap stereotypes.

Another argument against doing a play where you don’t have the casting pool was basically, how relevant to this community can this play possibly be, if it’s about the specific experience of an ethnic group that you don’t have in significant enough numbers to consider them part of your audition pool? I’m inclined to discount this particular line of thought, if only because the point of a play is never the specifics, but how the specifics give us a window into the universal. What is West Side Story about? Is it about what it is like to be in a gang in the 1950s (or whenever), or is it about the power of love to extend beyond the boundaries we try to wrap it in? Good plays do the following things:

  • Make real The Other
  • Allow us catharsis through recognition of our shared human experience

Just because your community doesn’t happen to have many people of a particular ethnicity, it doesn’t mean that their story isn’t important to your community. Put another way, I don’t have any kings in my community, but that doesn’t stop Henry V from being a rather good play.

Most of my experience is with college theater. I’ve directed professionally a bit, but I’ve spent a ton of time with college students, and I’ve loved it. I think that college theater can get away with more, from many angles, than professional or community theater can. The point of college theater is that the students learn and that they participate in/create dialog within their college. I’ve been specifically thinking a lot lately about The Capeman, a musical written by Paul Simon, drawn from the headlines of the 1960s. It examines a gang murder where a Puerto Rican kid killed an Irish kid in a knife fight. The music is awesome. The examination of systemic poverty and violence is nuanced and brilliant. It’s an amazing play with a lot to say. BUT. To do an ethnically-straight production, I would need a number of Latino men who can sing well. In the small, and largely white, colleges where I do most of my work, this is an impossible dream. Actually, getting any piece of that would be a small miracle– a lot of men, period. A lot of men who can sing, maaaaybe if I were lucky. A lot of Latino men who can sing? Not happening. But one of those colleges has a strong pattern of sending students out into the world to do service work–in the inner cities, in Latin America. Would the understanding they would gain by entering into the world of these Others be worth the possibility that they would offend? In the specific case of college theater, I would say yes. I might be wrong.

What do you think? I want to know.

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4 responses to “Questions about Race and Performance

  1. Hey! I was in Dancing at Lughnasa and I have Irish Heritage (and Finnish, and Dutch, and a million other things) 😛 – what are you saying? 😛 I would agree that you can get away with the race differential moreso in a collegial setting than a community theatre or professional theatre production. Another way to look at things: having a “normal” person play an “atypical” person (such as a person with autism). I think it is all in the portrayal and dialogue that surrounds it. It can help lower barriers and open dialogue for actors, communities and the like. I can also see where it has the possibility of causing problems. One way to address it might be in the director’s note in the program.

    Just my thoughts.

      • :-). I still reread dancing from time to time…there are so many levels of complexity that theatre can provide…that is why it can be such a great tool and such a dissonance creator.

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